Northeast Arkansas gears up for Beatles celebration

by George Jared (gjared@talkbusiness.net) 259 views 

Hurricane Harvey threatened to stop one of the marquee events at the 7th Annual Beatles at the Ridge festival Sept. 15-16 in Walnut Ridge. Two stewardesses that worked on the chartered plane used by the Beatles during the September 1964 U.S. Tour were slated to talk about their experiences with the world famous group, but when Harvey struck southern Texas it nearly changed their plans.

One of them had a friend whose home was severely damaged in the storm, and she planned to go and help repair the damage, Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp told Talk Business & Politics. The other stewardess is unable to drive and was depending on the other to give her a ride, he said. As of Monday afternoon both are still scheduled to be interviewed by John Lennon scholar and author Jude Southerland during the Artists and Authors Symposium at The Studio on Friday night in Walnut Ridge.

“This is pretty cool to have the two stewardesses who were on the plane with them coming to talk about their experiences,” Snapp said. “We’re anticipating a large crowd at the symposium.”

Organizers hope up to 10,000 people will attend the event. More than 100 vendors will be on hand, and there will be activities in the downtown area. Several bands, including the Legendary Pacers will perform.

It’s one of the premier tourism income generating events in Lawrence County. In 2016, tourists spent $19.391 million in travel dollars, a 12% increase from 2015. It generated $2.901 million in payroll revenues, and it helped employ 146 workers. About $433,857 in local tax dollars were generated.

THE WALNUT RIDGE CONNECTION
Snapp is an original founder of the festival. Walnut Ridge has a unique place in music history.

The Beatles landed at the Walnut Ridge Airport on Sept. 18, 1964 on their way from Dallas to New York. The foursome was tired, and they decided to take some time off from their tour and rest at the Reed Pigman dude ranch, near Alton, Mo. Their plane was too big to land at most airports in the region, so it was decided that Walnut Ridge’s Airport, a former pilot training base during World War II, would be the best place to land.

A smaller plane waited on the runway to whisk the band members away when they arrived. Paul McCartney was scared to fly in the small plane, and he left in a truck. The band came back two days later. Teenagers throughout the Ozarks learned the famed band was in the region, and turned out in full force to greet them before they left.

Snapp’s sister, Carrie Mae Snapp, along with a few others, sneaked onto the plane and stole items, including cigarette butts and pillow cases.

The festival has garnered worldwide attention. The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other publications have published feature stories. A list of the top 10 places to view Beatles history around the world was released a few years ago, and Walnut Ridge was listed as the fourth place to visit. The town appears on many Google searches involving the famed musical group.

Walnut Ridge has two monuments dedicated to the Rock-n-Roll era. The Beatles monument, a 10-foot by 20-foot aluminum mural, depicts the famed “Abbey Road” album. It was handcrafted by local businessman Danny West who spent thousands of hours carving the tribute. He did it free of charge.

The city also sports another monument, the Guitar Walk. Famed musicians Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and others played at honky tonks and other venues along U.S. 67 that went through Walnut Ridge. This tribute, erected just south of the Lawrence County Chamber building on U.S. 67, is shaped like a guitar on the ground. Visitors can walk on it, listen to recorded displays about these and other musicians who got their start in this part of Arkansas. The two monuments serve as an axis the festival revolves around.

“It’s hard to believe I was nine years old when I stood with my family on the tarmac at the airport and watched The Beatles depart and now, 53 years later, that brief moment in history provides international attention to our community,” Snapp said.

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